The History of the Jewish Community of Siauliai
The Jewish Community until the German Invasion in WWII
At the beginning of the 20th century, some 10,000 Jews were living in Siauliai, about 60% of the city’s population. Thousands of Jews worked in medium to large sized factories, most of them in the food and clothing sectors, though others were employed in construction, woodwork, and chemicals. Jewish tradesmen and merchants worked in export businesses on the Baltic Sea. The city was home to private banks owned by Jews, as well as to Jewish associations for credit and loans.
At the beginning of the First World War, Siauliai was the site of heavy fighting, as a result of which the city’s center was destroyed. Russian Cossacks carried out pogroms against the Jewish population, recruiting young men to dig defense ditches outside the city, and expelling nearly all the remaining Jews into Russia. In the summer of 1915 the Germans captured the city. The retreating Russian Army burnt the city center, which had been home to most of the city’s Jews. The magnificent synagogue, built in 1749, was destroyed in the fire, as was the new yeshiva (Talmudic college) building.
From 1919, with the establishment of an independent Lithuanian state, Siauliai’s importance grew, and it became a provincial capital. Some of the Jews who had been expelled during the Russian rule now returned to the city. With the help of their relatives in South Africa and the United States, as well as aid provided by the Joint Distribution Committee, they restored the ruins of their homes and businesses, reestablishing the prayer houses, the yeshiva and some of the batei midrash (study halls). The orphanage was now housed in one of the refurbished study halls. The Jewish hospital was also reopened, as were many charitable foundations and a branch of the OSE (Oeuvre De Secours Au Enfants, a worldwide Jewish health organization). Thousands of school children were treated in the OSE clinic in Siauliai; the OSE also ran a popular summer camp which was very well attended.
On the eve of the Second World War some 6,600 Jews were living in Siauliai, about 20% of the city’s total population. Most of them made their living from industry and trade, and several hundred Jews worked as manual laborers, as clerks and in the free professions. There were over 200 small factories in the city, of which more than half were owned by Jews. 200 Jewish craftsmen were unionized in a professional labor union which organized a loan fund and provided the union members with medical care. A Jewish industrial bank and a society for mutual credit played an important role in the financial life of the city’s Jews. The Frenkel family’s leather goods factories employed hundreds of Jews.
During this period antisemitic attacks occurred from time to time, as well as incidents which targeted Jewish businesses. The Lithuanian traders’ union came out against purchasing from Jewish businesses; as a result, the livelihood of many Jewish merchants in Siauliai was damaged. Other non-Jewish residents in the city campaigned against kosher slaughter and signs written in Hebrew letters. On the eve of the war, there were blood libels in Siauliai and a number of pogroms were carried out.
In March 1939, when the Lithuanian city of Memel (Klaipėda) was annexed by Germany; many Jewish refugees from Memel found refuge in Siauliai. Toward the end of 1939, the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement, in which Poland was partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union, resulted in a wave of Jewish refugees to Siauliai. These included members of Hachshara kibbutzim for practical Zionist training. At the beginning of 1940 these Zionist pioneers organized a new Hachshara kibbutz for 120 refugees who were members of the HeChalutz movement. When, in June of 1940, Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union, Jewish political activity in Siauliai came to a halt; the youth movements were disbanded and the kibbutz dissolved. Institutions for Jewish education, including the gymnasium, were closed or converted into communist educational institutions. Jewish private businesses, as well as many Jewish houses, were nationalized. In June of 1941 many Jews were exiled to Siberia and other parts of the Soviet Union after having been declared “unreliable elements”; among those exiled were many Zionists.
Jewish youth studied in a number of Jewish and governmental institutions in Siauliai. These included: a religious Hebrew school which held 400 students; a number of Hebrew schools belonging to the Tarbut network; a Hebrew gymnasium founded in 1920; a religious gymnasium belonging to the Yavne network; a Yiddish school with 300 students; and two kindergartens – a Hebrew kindergarten and a Yiddish kindergarten. The Hebrew gymnasium had a preparatory school as well, and held after school enrichment classes; it became a focal point for Zionist activities. Many of the school’s students immigrated to Eretz Israel, including many to kibbutzim. However, schooling in Hebrew was gradually curtailed by the Lithuanian authorities, and the Hebrew gymnasium was forced to comply. Each of the various Jewish schools in Siauliai contained its own library; the city also hosted two larger libraries, one Yiddish and the other, Hebrew. From time to time, vocational Jewish schools were also opened in the city.
Siauliai was home to a yeshiva (Talmudic college), a large talmud torah (religious school), a beit midrash (study hall)and a modern cheder (religious primary school) for poor children whose families had difficulty paying for religious education. The traditional cheders no longer existed. In addition there were a number of kluizes (prayer and study houses). Workers practicing different trades organized their own kluizes: the grocers, the traders, the shoemakers, the tailors, the wagon drivers, the butchers and the undertakers. Other kluizes were created on a geographic basis, with each neighborhood establishing its own kluiz. This normally occurred as a result of local initiative with the support of well to do Jews and the religious community. The majority of the community was affiliated with the Mitnagdim (the stream of Judaism opposed to the Hassidic movement) although there were more than a hundred Hassidic Jews in the city.
Political Movements and Parties
Most of the Jews in Siauliai had Zionist sympathies. The city was home to a large number of Zionist parties, including the Revisionists, Hibat Zion, and Mizrahi. The Zionists of Siauliai founded the Zamir organization, which held literary and musical soirees. Yitzhak Tzvi Shapira, born in Siauliai, was among the founding members of the city of Petah Tikva. His son, Abraham Shapira, was head of the Jewish Watchmen’s organization (HaShomrim) in Eretz Israel, and one of the leaders of the Hagana. Graduates of the Siauliai Zionist movements were among the founding members of the cities of Kfar Saba and Rehovot.
There were many youth groups affiliated with the Zionist parties, among them HeChalutz, HaShomer HaTzair, Beitar (from 1929), HaPoel HaMizrahi, Gordonia, Zionist Youth, and Bnei Akiva. Siauliai was also home to a number of kibbutzim for practical Zionist training. HeChalutz movement operated a woodworking factory and a confectionary factory. In 1920-1921 a group of HeChalutz members immigrated to Eretz Israel.
Siauliai also had branches of the Zionist sports organizations, Maccabi and HaPoel. The Bund party was active in Siauliai until the First World War, and was supported by hundreds of the city’s Jewish laborers and craftsmen. A branch of Agudat Yisrael was also active in Siauliai, and there were a number of Jews who belonged to the Communist Party.
Many Jews were regular visitors to the city’s government run theater, and from time to time Jewish theater troops from Kovno (Kaunas) would visit Siauliai. A Yiddish paper – Die Zeit (The Time) – was published in the city. In addition, most of the members of the city’s fire brigade were Jewish. The “Union of Jewish Fighters who Fought in the Lithuanian War of Independence” had a chapter in Siauliai, which operated a club and a reading room; these rooms were used for lectures and as a regular meeting place for a Jewish drama club.
Famous members of Siauliai during this time include: the lawyer Dov Shilansky, one of the Etzel commanders in Europe and later chairman of the Knesset; the journalist and writer Ester Kall; the educator David Pur; and the professor of history, David Golan.